The world has gained ground on some serious environmental problems but is stuck or is losing ground on many others. A renewed effort by the whole global community is humanity and the Earth’s only hope. This was the consensus of a UN Environment Programme official, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program director, and the mayor of Washington, DC, who all shared a panel June 6 at DC’s National Press Club to mark the release of the UN Environment Programme’s fifth Global Environment Outlook, or GEO-5, a recurring report on environmental well-being worldwide.
“There’s no question that we are at a critical juncture in our efforts to put this world on a sustainable path. And I’m not sure that we’re doing enough,” Vincent Gray, DC mayor, told the audience.
His fellow panelists—Amy Fraenkel, director of the UN Environmental Programme’s Regional Office for North America; and James Dobrowolski, a GEO-5 co-author and U.S. Department of Agriculture program director—explained that the global community has a lengthy record of making agreements on ecological conservation but a very poor one of carrying them out. Out of 90 international environmental goals that world leaders have pledged to since 1972, the report’s authors have seen “significant progress” occur on only four.
“The overall message of the report is not very positive. The world is continuing to speed down an unsustainable path,” Fraenkel said.
The conference presented the report’s key findings and recommendations. Simultaneous press conferences on the report, which you can read in full here, took place throughout the day in Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, New Delhi, Beijing, New York, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Geneva, and Brussels.
The four areas of progress are: eliminating ozone-layer-depleting substances, removing lead from fuel, increasing clean-water access, and boosting research on ways to reduce marine ecosystem pollution. “Modest progress” took place on another 40 goals, among them reducing deforestation and expanding protected land areas. Meanwhile, the world saw “little to no progress” on 38 goals, such as indoor air pollution and climate change. And it worsened on eight, including coral reef health.
Marine ecosystems in general need much more attention, according to Dobrowolski. He said that protected land areas cover 13% of the Earth’s land mass but only 1.5% of its marine areas.
He also expressed concern about population growth. World population is expected to reach 10 billion people by the end of the century.
“We’ve got to feed 10 billion people by 2100. That’s a daunting challenge,” he said.
Then there is deforestation. Dobrowolski said that the world lost 100 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2005, and that by the century’s end, deforestation and forest degradation will cost the global economy more than the 2008 economic crisis.
Further danger looms from the production and consumption of chemical, particularly e-waste. He said that with 20 million to 50 million tons of it stacking up every year, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet.
The GEO-5 calls for a UN system-wide surge that brings scientists, government officials, and the private sector together to curb consumption, stamp out ecosystem and species destruction, and reform the plethora of human behaviors that endanger the Earth. Fraenkel noted that the few treaties that did lead to substantial progress on environmental problems—for example, the Montreal protocol that achieved the worldwide near-elimination of ozone-depleting CFCs—shared certain characteristics. One was strong advocacy from, and consensus within, the scientific community; another was the support of credible political institutions; a third, the declaration of clear, measurable target goals.
She added, however, that she is “alarmed” by some governments’ cutting funding for collection of environmental data. If we cannot measure the problem, we cannot do much to solve it, she argued.
“Ignorance is totally irresponsible,” she said.
Encouraging actions are under way around the globe, nonetheless, and the report highlights many of them. For instance, Brazil’s Bolsa Foresta program uses financial mechanisms to reduce deforestation and address forest concerns. Also, Ontario implemented a series of renewable energy initiatives and, in the process, created 13,000 new jobs.
“We have some positive things going on,” Dobrowolski said. “We have to speed things up, though. We have to think about what specific things we can do, and Geo-5 has some of those policies in there.”
On that note, Mayor Gray spoke proudly of the initiative that he and his city have taken on the environmental front. DC is the number-two city in the United States for LEED-certified buildings (second only to New York City) and has a bike-share program that makes 10,000 bicycles available for rent to the public, he pointed out. He also noted that he personally enacted a grocery-bag tax and used the proceeds for river cleanups; launched a project to replace 70,000 incandescent lights with energy-efficient lights; and arranged for the construction, starting in 2013, of a 37-mile streetcar network.
“We want to be a part of implementing the priorities of this report,” Gray said.
The conference took place in conjunction with World Environment Day, a global day of observance that the United Nations Environment Programme celebrates every June 5. The day recognizes looming environmental issues and the sustainable practices that alleviate them.
Amy Raenkel speaks at an opening ceremony for World Environment Day.
The UN Environment Programme chooses one city each year to host the day’s festivities. Washington, DC, was this year’s choice, and hence it was the scene of a series of environmental activities June 3-6.
“Let’s use this day (World Environment Day) as a symbol, as a catalyst, for realizing that if we don’t do better in the environment, we’re not going to do well in other areas,” Gray said.
Whether you happened to celebrate June 5 or not, the opportunity to take up extra effort for the global sustainability isn’t going away—and neither are the problems of pollution, resource depletion, and climate change that make added initiative all the more necessary. Each of us can do something more. Let’s all take time in days ahead to figure out what it might be.
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